I was on the sets of a film. A heroine treading the cobbled stones in an alley flanked by medieval half-timbered houses, strains of Sinatra floating in the cold, evening air. All in my imagination. Except that the houses, the network of alleys and the musician duo playing poignant tunes on their accordion and guitar did exist.
It was a moment that demanded to be stuck in. I was walking through the narrow lanes in the Schnoor quarter in Bremen in freezing February.
Bremen is a small city in north western Germany on the Weser river but do not let its size beguile you. It is a former superpower of an erstwhile pan-European power block called the Hanseatic League. The title Freie Hansestadt Bremen (Free Hanseatic City of Bremen) is a tribute to its past glory. The Hansa came to power in the 13th century and lasted four centuries, protecting its network of 200 North European members in all matters political and economic, with a powerful fleet. Modern day Bremen is the second-largest port in Germany.
Almost no one speaks English in this city that dates back 1,200 years in the pages of history. Yet with a handful of German words in my kitty and elaborate gestures, it was surprisingly easy to get by.
The only person who dazzled me with her English was an avuncular woman who met me at the town hall along with a French couple and their young boy. She was a smartly turned out German who showed the four of us around the Town Hall of Bremen with panache.
That Town Hall is a work of Gothic art. If on the exterior it is decorated with sculptures of emperors and prince-electors who back up Bremen’s imperial background, inside the hall is a stunning ceremonial venue with model ships hanging from the ceiling to signify its rich heritage in maritime trade. Art Nouveau decorations add a mind boggling lushness to the rooms with intricately carved wood, cherubs, chandeliers and gilded leather wallpaper.
Behind the old part (which dates back to 1405) of the town hall is an extension that is the new town hall. In this sits the Burgomaster (mayor) of Bremen. Once a year, the mayor throws open the town hall to the youth of Bremen and they have parties and events in the old town hall but as was pointed out to me, ‘the youth are so proud of their heritage that they make sure that they do not harm it in any way’. I appreciated the idea and the sense of responsibility it entails.
One evening I sat in its Ratskeller, the cellar that is, where there is a tavern and one of the oldest cellars in Germany. Wines in gigantic barrels here date back to the 17th century. I dined on fish and an exquisite glass of red wine. A bit of an aside: Have you noticed how they top up your wine glasses in the northern half of Germany? I would feel tipsy with just a glass even during lunch. Indeed, I cannot whine about such a wonderful wine-y feeling. For it is a happy feeling to totter about, a halo of alcoholic haze about your person.
I loved the way that the Marktplatz (Market Square) stops you in your tracks. It is surrounded by the most stunning architecture. For one, you cannot miss out on the protector of the city. He is the 15th century giant Roland who stands tall and broad in front of the Town Hall with his ‘sword of justice’.
Next to the town hall is a bronze sculpture of Bremen’s most famous citizens. A donkey, a cat, a dog and a cockerel. Yes, you heard me right and no I have not had a few happy brownies. These four are a part of the fabric of the town — as the musicians out of the Grimms Brothers’ fairy tales from whom the town gets its epithet, ‘die Stadt der Stadtmusikanten’ (The Town of the Town Musicians).
Old, gabled town houses stand around the square. They were mostly damaged during WWII bombings but the people of Bremen got together and spent their money to get them back on their feet. A part of the Marktplatz is dominated by the exquisitely gilded 16th century Schütting, a Flemish-inspired merchants’ guildhall, and off it is St Peter’s Cathedral, the towers of which aspire to touch the sky. Then there is the Bremische Bürgerschaft (Parliament of Bremen) which is curiously modern. To me the only redeeming feature in the rectangular frame was the sheath of glass on its facade. It came to me as I crossed it each time and saw the beauty of the old buildings reflected in the glass along with the blue skies of Bremen.
Kaffee (coffee) is the rationale behind Bremen. It is where the German affair with coffee started. The first coffee house in Germany is known to have come up in Bremen in 1673. No one knows where it might have been but six years later the coffee house was shifted to the Schütting. It was such a fashionable drink that it was served at the court of the Great Elector, Frederick William of Brandenburg in 1675, and inspired composer Johann Sebastian Bach to write a paean of praise for it.
Here is how his “Coffee Cantata”, in which a young woman pleads for her love for the new drink with her disapproving father, goes:
Oh! How sweet coffee does taste,
Better than a thousand kisses,
Milder than muscat wine.
Coffee, coffee, I’ve got to have it,
And if someone wants to perk me up,
Oh, just give me a cup of coffee!
I could see the lovelorn maid’s point when I sat in the Kaffeehaus Classico, an institution in Bremen. Inside the café with its Renaissance painting clad walls and Doric columns, you are just one step away from perfect coffee and the most luscious cakes you will dip your fork into. I was in the company of well-heeled and beautifully dressed elderly folks who I could see fully appreciating the beauty of the cakes and coffee. And I could not shake off the feeling that I had stepped back in time into the sets of a classic film where everyone is dressed to the hilt and that at any moment they would set off into a smooth foxtrot.
The café was also my go-to during rainy afternoons and I have to point this out to you, that if you are in Bremen, you cannot (and I repeat must not) miss this café. It is right opposite a Starbucks which remains mostly empty, because who would want to sit in a chain coffee shop when you have an old-world café at hand, right? Plus, I noticed that in Bremen they are sure that they do not want to be invaded by an army of chain restaurants and coffee shops. That thought process grew on me.
Just off the Marktplatz is an entire alley that was built by a coffee baron. His name was Ludwig Roselius and he built the Böttcherstrasse at the start of the 20th century. The alley, named after the coopers or böttcher who once worked here, was dilapidated till Roselius bought it, executed his vision and transformed it into something entirely eccentric. The hotel I was staying in, the Grand Atlantic, was right off the Böttcherstrasse and I took this path every day to make my way to old town.
Roselius with the help of Bernhard Hoetger, a German architect and artist of the Expressionist Movement, designed the alley as a tribute to art and culture and he dedicated the alley to Hitler by placing a bronze relief at its entrance called “The Lightbringer”. It depicts a man with a sword descending from the sky and attacking a dragon. His aim was to glorify Hitler’s victory over the so-called “powers of darkness”. His reward? The Führer rejected it as “degenerate art” and Roselius was denied membership to the Nazi Party.
I was taken in by the Glockenspiel House. Glockenspiel is a carillon that is a musical instrument usually housed in the belfry of a church. This particular one has 30 bells made of Meissen porcelain and it chimes twice every day, rather ethereally, while a revolving panel depicts the city’s adventurous Hanseatic merchants. People come together at those times most magically and gape at the revolving panels. It is like a brotherhood of the like-minded who are transfixed by all things beautiful. Then just as if with the breaking of spell, in a trice, they disperse.
If you want a bit of evening drinks and laughter, head to the garden bars in the Schlachte area that is positioned by the river. During my ambles in the city I came across the Kaffee Mühle (The Coffee Grinder), a 100-year-old picture perfect mill that lies on the route from the railway station to the old town. But the quarter in Bremen that drew me back again and again was the Schnoor.
In the 10th century the Schnoor was the poor corner. A district of fishermen and sailors. Meaning string, the Schnoor gets its name from old handicrafts associated with shipping such as ropes, cables and anchor chains. Stories say that it refers to the rope makers who lived here, while another version is that it is named after the 15th-16th century half-timbered houses that are strung together like pearls in a row. The maze of lanes inside is lined with art galleries, chocolateries, cafés and little boutiques. Adding a piece of quirk to its medieval atmosphere is Birgittenkloster (Convent of Saint Birgitta), a modern Bridgettine convent housed in bright orange and green buildings. It is a good place to sit in a chocolaterie, sip on coffee accompanied by chocolate goodies, and watch the world go by in its quaint quarters.
Bremen catches the fancy. It certainly caught mine and in the week that I spent there I was content roaming its medieval lanes. Not once did it occur to me to catch a train from the hauptbahnhof and get going.
I have a quirky memory that was shared with a bunch of strangers who I was on a walking tour with one afternoon. The skies had swollen up beyond compare that afternoon and before we could do anything about being out in the open, the heavens burst forth, and we were showered by hail that pricked the skin like a thousand tiny needles at once. We were soaked to the skin and terribly cold but I remember the broad smiles on all our faces by the end.